LOS ANGELES -- US high school students are taking tougher classes, receiving better grades, and, apparently, learning less than their counterparts of 15 years ago.
Those were the discouraging implications of two reports issued yesterday by the federal Department of Education that assess the performance of students in both public and private schools.
Together, the reports raised sobering questions about the past two decades of educational overhauls, including whether the movement to raise school standards has amounted to much more than window dressing.
"I think we're sleeping through a crisis," said David P. Driscoll, the Massachusetts commissioner of education, during a Washington news conference convened by the Department of Education. He called the study results "stunning."
Bruce Fuller, a professor of education and public policy at the University of California, Berkeley, said he found the results "dismal." After years of reforms aimed primarily at elementary schools, Fuller said, the studies "certainly support shining the spotlight on the high school as a priority for reform efforts."
The reports summarized two major government efforts to measure the performance of high school seniors as part of the National Assessment of Educational Progress. One was a standardized test of seniors conducted in 2005. The other was an analysis of the transcripts of students who graduated from high school that year.
The transcript study showed that, compared with students in similar studies going back to 1990, the 2005 graduates had racked up more high school credits, had taken more college preparatory classes, and had strikingly higher grade point averages. The average GPA rose from 2.68 in 1990 to 2.98 -- close to a solid B -- in 2005.
That was the good news -- or so it seemed. But the standardized test results showed that 12th-grade reading scores have generally been dropping since 1992, casting doubt on what students are learning in those college prep classes.
Math scores posed a different sort of mystery, because the Department of Education switched to a new test in 2005 that wasn't directly comparable with those used before. Still, the results of the new test didn't inspire confidence: Less than one-quarter of the 12th-graders tested scored in the "proficient" range.
The reports also showed that the gap separating white and black and white and Hispanic students has barely budged since the early 1990s. And while the results were not broken down by state, a broad regional breakdown showed that the West and Southeast lagged well behind the Midwest and, to a lesser extent, the Northeast.
David Gordon, superintendent of schools in Sacramento County and a participant in the Department of Education news conference, said he found it especially disturbing that the studies focused on "our best students," those who had made it to the 12th grade or who had graduated.
"It's clear to me from these data that for all of our talk of the achievement gap among subgroups of students, a larger problem may be an instructional gap or a rigor gap, which effects not just some, but most of our students," he said.
The reading and math test was given to 21,000 high school seniors at 900 US schools, including 200 private schools.
The transcript study was based on 26,000 transcripts from 720 schools, 80 of them private. The reports did not give separate results for public versus private.
For more information, go to the Nation's Report Card website at nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard .